Thursday, October 23, 2014

Secretary-General to dispatch UN relief team to Sri Lankan combat zone

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today announced that he will immediately send a United Nations humanitarian team to the shrinking conflict zone in northern Sri Lanka, calling for the mission to be allowed into the area as soon as possible.

The dispatch of the team to the five square-mile pocket of land where fighting rages between the Government and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was agreed upon recently between President Mahinda Rajapaksa and Mr. Ban’s envoy, Vijay Nambiar, who also serves as his Chef de Cabinet.

The purpose of the team will be to assess the situation and provide assistance to civilians, the Secretary-General told reporters today in Brussels.

“It is critical that this beam be allowed into the zone as soon as possible and I am asking for strong support and speedy assistance of the Sri Lankan Government,” he said, adding that, for its part, the LTTE must put down its arms and protect civilians.

“So many lives have been sacrificed and there is no time to lose,” Mr. Ban stressed, calling on the parties to respect the call issued by the Security Council yesterday, in which it urged both sides to respect international humanitarian law and allow aid agencies access those affected by fighting.

Yesterday’s statement, read out by Ambassador Claude Heller of Mexico, which holds the Council’s rotating monthly presidency, also strongly condemned the LTTE’s use of civilians as human shields and its actions that block people from leaving the conflict area.

The 15-member body also appealed to the Tamil rebels to “renounce terrorism, allow UN-assisted evacuation of remaining civilians in the conflict area and join the political process of dialogue in order to put an end to the conflict.”

Today, a senior UN relief official put the number of civilians still trapped in the conflict zone in the Vanni region at 50,000.

Catherine Bragg, Assistant Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, said that the Government has reported that 103,000 people have left the area and are in transit to camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs)

“We hope that those numbers are accurate,” but the world body cannot verify them, she said at a press briefing in New York.

The most current information also points to 26,000 new arrivals at transit centres, as well as 95,000 IDPs seeking refuge in camps, up from 80,000 yesterday, Ms. Bragg said at a press briefing in New York.

She also underscored the need for extra camps to accommodate the expected influx of more than 100,000 people, noting that the UN has been pressing the Sri Lankan Government for additional sites and relocation of IDPs now in camps to live with host families.

“It is in the interest of the Government and the IDPs to be able to leave these camps as soon as possible,” Ms. Bragg said.

She emphasized that both the Government and LTTE are violating international humanitarian law regarding the protection of civilians, with heavy weapons being used in the so-called no-fire zone and the LTTE preventing people from fleeing the “very horrendous situation” in the region.

Also today, the UN issued an urgent plea for funds to meet the needs of IDPs who have fled the combat zone, with less than one-third of its $155 million appeal having been met to date.

The exodus of tens of thousands of people has stretched humanitarian and Government capacities, according to a statement issued by the world body’s Humanitarian Coordinator in Sri Lanka.

Many of those who escaped conflict “were forced from their homes more than a year ago, and it is something of a miracle that they have survived such a terrible ordeal,” said Neil Buhne. “We need to ensure that no more lives are lost by meeting their immediate needs, and beyond that to help them get back on their feet, so that they can eventually return to their homes.”

He said he recently saw first hand how relief teams are scrambling to provide assistance to “crowds of weary and hungry people.”

At camps at the town of Vavuniya which is housing most of the civilians who fled fighting, “I saw infants with dysentery, malnourished children and women, untended wounds, and people dressed in the ragged clothing they’ve been wearing for months,” Mr. Buhne said.

The funds requested by the UN are intended to cover the costs of basic needs, such as food, medicine, water, sanitation, shelter and clothing, and also to help put children back into school to “give them some semblance of normality.”

source: UN

Pakistan Sends Special Police to Taliban-Held Area

By JANE PERLEZ and PIR ZUBAIR SHAH —

ISLAMABAD – Pakistani authorities on Thursday deployed special constabulary forces to a strategically important district only 70 miles from the capital, Islamabad, that has come under the effective control of the Taliban in the last several days, police and residents said.

Four platoons of the Frontier Constabulary, a paramilitary police force, moved into the district at the request of the civilian commissioner of the area on Thursday, following four platoons that arrived Wednesday. At least one officer was killed and another seriously wounded in a clash with Taliban militants during the deployment, police said.

The fall of the district, Buner, did not mean that the Taliban could imminently threaten Islamabad. But it was another indication of the gathering strength of the insurgency and it raised new alarm about the ability of the government to fend off an unrelenting Taliban advance toward the heart of Pakistan.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration. He was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence commanders.

Buner, home to about one million people, is a gateway to a major Pakistani city, Mardan, the second largest in North-West Frontier Province, after Peshawar. The deploying platoons, each with about 40 officers, will be used to increase the Pakistani security presence in the region. But the underpaid, poorly trained force was not expected to immediately challenge the Taliban militants, who, armed, with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers, have erected checkpoints and intimidated local police, forcing them into their stations, residents.

There are about 400 to 500 Taliban fighters in the district, local authorities said.

“They take over Buner, then they roll into Mardan and that’s the end of the game,” a senior law enforcement official in North-West Frontier Province said. He asked that his name be withheld because was not authorized to speak to the news media.

The Taliban had pushed into the district from the neighboring Swat Valley, where the Pakistani Army agreed to a truce in mid-February and remains in its barracks.

In another sign that the Taliban are consolidating control of Buner, Taliban militants held a meeting, or jirga, with local elders and the local administration on Thursday, residents said, agreeing to a truce similar to the one reached in Swat.

The Taliban pledged to local leaders that they would not interfere with non-government organizations or government installations, nor openly display their weapons. Negotiations would be used to sort out friction with local residents, and there would be forgiveness for those who killed Taliban in earlier fighting.

Representatives of Mualana Sufi Mohammed, the Taliban leader who brokered the peace deal in Swat, were present at the meeting, the results of which will be announced at a public rally on Sunday, a resident in Daggar, Buner’s main city, said.

Pakistani television news reports indicated Thursday that Taliban militants were also crossing into Shandla, another district bordering Buner and Swat.

On Wednesday, officials and residents said heavily armed Taliban militants were patrolling villages, and the local police had retreated to their station houses in much of Buner. Staff members of local nongovernmental organizations had been ordered to leave, and their offices were looted, residents said. Pakistani television news channels showed Taliban fighters triumphantly carrying office equipment out of the offices of the organizations.

“They are everywhere,” one resident of Daggar said by telephone. “There is no resistance.”

The Taliban advance has been building for weeks, with the assistance of sympathizers and even a local government official who was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban, the senior official said.

It also comes 10 days after the government of President Asif Ali Zardari agreed to the imposition of Islamic law, or Shariah, in Swat, as part of the deal with the Taliban.

A local politician, Jamsher Khan, said that people were initially determined to resist the Taliban in Buner, but that they were discouraged by the deal the government struck with the Taliban in Swat.

“We felt stronger as long we thought the government was with us,” he said by telephone, “but when the government showed weakness, we too stopped offering resistance to the Taliban.”

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said she was concerned that Pakistan’s government was making too many concessions to the Taliban, emboldening the militants and allowing them to spread by giving in to their demands.

“I think that the Pakistani government is basically abdicating to the Taliban and to the extremists,” Mrs. Clinton told the House Foreign Affairs Committee on Capitol Hill.

She added that the deterioration of security in nuclear-armed Pakistan “poses a mortal threat to the security and safety of our country and the world.”

A senior American official said Mrs. Clinton’s remarks were prompted in part by news of the Taliban takeover in Buner. The officials said that the further erosion of government authority in an area so close to the capital ought to stir concern not only in Pakistan but also among influential Pakistanis abroad.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, arrived in Islamabad on Wednesday for the second time in two weeks, reflecting the sense of alarm in the Obama administration. He was scheduled to meet with Pakistan’s top military and intelligence commanders.

The takeover of Buner (pronounced boo-NAIR) is particularly significant because the people there have tried in the past year to stand up to the Taliban by establishing small private armies to fight the militants. Last year when the militants encroached into Buner, killing policemen, the local people fought back and forced the militants out.

But with a beachhead in neighboring Swat, and a number of training camps for fresh recruits, the Taliban were able to carry out what amounted to an invasion of Buner.

“The training camps will provide waves of men coming into Buner,” the senior law enforcement official said.

The Taliban expansion into Buner has begun to raise alarm among the senior ranks of the Pakistani Army, said a Western official who was familiar with the Pakistani military.

On Wednesday, one of the highest-ranking army officers traveled from Islamabad to Peshawar and met with the officers of the 11th Corps, the army division based in Peshawar, to discuss the “overall situation in Buner,” the official said.

One of the major concerns is that from the hills of Buner the Taliban have access to the flatlands of the district of Swabi, which lead directly to the four-lane motorway that runs from Islamabad to Peshawar, the capital of North-West Frontier Province.

The Pakistani military does not have a presence in Buner, Pakistani and Western officials said. The main government authority in Buner is the police, who have become demoralized by their low pay and lack of equipment in the face of the Taliban, Pakistani police officials say.

The Taliban have set up checkpoints in a number of villages in Buner, intimidating policemen and forcing them into their police stations, residents in Daggar said by telephone.

The militants were patrolling the bazaar in Daggar, residents said. Women, who used to move freely around the bazaars, were scarcely to be seen, they said. Those who did venture out were totally covered.

One of the big attractions of Buner for people from all over Pakistan, the shrine of the Sufi saint Pir Baba, was now in the control of the militants, the senior law enforcement official said.

Last year, the villagers around the shrine kept the Taliban at bay when the militants threatened to take it over.

But in the last 10 days, the Taliban closed the shrine and said it was strictly off limits to women, the senior official said. The militants are now patrolling it.

The Taliban control in Buner came swiftly in the last few days, officials said.

The militants were helped by the actions of the commissioner of Malakand, Javed Mohammad, who is also the senior official in Swat and who was appointed on the recommendation of the Taliban, the senior law enforcement official said.

The Taliban began their assault on Buner in early April, when a battalion of the Taliban militia with heavy weaponry crossed over the hills from Swat to Buner, according to an account in the newspaper Dawn that appeared on Saturday.

The Taliban then captured three policemen and two civilians, and killed them, the newspaper said.

Infuriated by the killings, people in lower Buner and Sultanwas assembled a volunteer force and killed 17 Taliban fighters, the account said.

But soon after that, Mr. Mohammad tried to persuade the local elders to allow the Taliban to enter Buner, the newspaper said.

Soon afterward, Mr. Mohammad ordered the local armies to dissolve, the senior law enforcement official said. The order led many of those who had been willing to stand up to the Taliban to either flee or give up, the official said. Among those who are reported to have fled is Fateh Khan, a wealthy Buner businessman. Mr. Khan had been one of the main organizers and financiers of the private armies in Buner.

In a show of strength, the militants held a feast in the home of a local Taliban sympathizer two weeks ago, and since then the Taliban have fanned out into the district, the senior official said.

Carlotta Gall contributed reporting from Islamabad, Mark Landler and David Stout from Washington, and Sharon Otterman from New York.

source: The New York Times

Memo From Islamabad Pakistan Rehearses Its Two-Step on Airstrikes

By JANE PERLEZ–

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan – With two senior American officials at his side, the Pakistani foreign minister unleashed a strong rebuke last week, saying that American drone strikes against militants in Pakistan’s tribal areas were eroding trust between the allies.

The Americans, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, and the special envoy, Richard C. Holbrooke, defended their strategy for Pakistan. Later, Mr. Holbrooke dismissed the salvo by the foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, saying it was to be expected.

Diplomatic Partners From left, Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman; Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy; Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Pakistan last week.

Diplomatic Partners From left, Adm. Mike Mullen, Joint Chiefs chairman; Richard C. Holbrooke, special envoy; Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi in Pakistan last week.

In fact, both sides have grown accustomed to an unusual diplomatic dance around the drones. For all their public protests, behind the scenes, Pakistani officials may countenance the drones more than Mr. Qureshi’s reprimand would suggest, Pakistan and American analysts and officials say.

Why else would Pakistani military officials be requesting that the United States give them the drones to operate, asked Prof. Riffat Hussain, of the defense studies department at Quaid-e-Azam University in Islamabad.

His answer is that senior Pakistani officials consider the drones one of their only effective tools against the militants. Moreover, using the drones takes pressure off the Pakistani Army, which has proved reluctant to fight the militants, or incapable of doing so, in the rugged mountains along the Afghan border.

“If the government of Pakistan was not convinced of the efficacy of the drone attacks, why would they be asking for the technology?” asked Professor Hussain, who also lectures at the National Defense University, the main scholarly institution for the military.

Most of the aircraft, about the size of a Cessna, take off with Pakistani assent from a base inside Pakistan, American and Pakistani officials acknowledge. A small group of Pakistani intelligence operatives assigned to the tribal areas help choose targets, while the drones, armed with Hellfire missiles, are remotely piloted from the United States, they said.

Permission for the aircraft to strike in the tribal areas was negotiated by the Bush administration with the former president, Pervez Musharraf, and then with the current leader, Asif Ali Zardari. The Obama administration has renewed those understandings, American and Pakistani officials say.

The cooperation has been successful. Nine out of 20 senior operatives from Al Qaeda on a list compiled last year have been killed, according to American military commanders, a fact the Pakistanis do not dispute.

But as effective as the attacks have proved, the Pakistanis’ discomfort with the drones is real. The larger issue surrounding the drone strikes is the trade-off between decapitating the militant hierarchy and the risk of further destabilizing Pakistan – by undercutting the military and civilian government, by provoking retaliatory attacks from the militants, and by driving the Taliban and Al Qaeda deeper into Pakistan in search of new havens.

Then there is the matter of public perception, particularly over the civilian casualties caused by the drone strikes, which infuriate Pakistani politicians and the media.

The deaths make it difficult for any Pakistani leader to support the drones publicly. At the same time, the Pakistani disavowals only reinforce the popular notion that the war against the militants merely furthers America’s interests, not Pakistan’s own.

In public, President Zardari, who is portrayed in much of the Pakistani media as slavishly pro-American, chooses to deny Pakistani participation in the strikes. Despite having agreed to their use, he says the drones represent an infringement of Pakistani sovereignty that the government cannot tolerate.

About 500 civilians have been killed in the drone attacks, Talat Masood, a former Pakistani general, estimates. But, he said, the government fails to point out that many of those killed are most likely hosting Qaeda militants and cannot be deemed entirely innocent.

Last week, Baitullah Mehsud and Hakimullah Mehsud, the two senior leaders of Tehrik-e-Taliban, the Pakistani Taliban umbrella group, said the increasing tempo of drone attacks would drive them to respond with more serious terrorist attacks, even as many as two a week.

Another militant boss, Maulvi Nazir, threatened that the retaliation would include the capture of Islamabad, the capital. Last Thursday, in an interview with Al Sahab, the media arm of Al Qaeda, he said the drone attacks were the work of both the United States and the Pakistani Army.

As proof of his claims, Mr. Nazir’s group distributed a video showing young Pakistani tribesmen confessing to having been hired by the Pakistani military to pick targets for the drones.

The video was distributed and apparently shot in Wana, the main city of South Waziristan, a Taliban stronghold. As a finale, the video shows those who had confessed, including some from Mr. Nazir’s own group, executed for spying.

One intriguing aspect of the drone attacks is that people living in the tribal region under the militants’ grip may be more accepting of them than other Pakistanis, according to a recent but limited survey.

The survey, described as unscientific, was conducted in four urban centers in North and South Waziristan and Kurram, all in the tribal region, by a group of academics belonging to the Aryana Institute for Regional Research and Advocacy, a small Pakistani research group.

Its organizer, Khadim Hussain, a professor of linguistics and communication at Bahria University in Islamabad, an institution backed by the Pakistani Navy, stressed that the survey was only “exploratory.”

Of 650 people approached for the survey, 550 answered, according to the institute, which is financed by 10 academics and human rights workers, most of whom come from the tribal areas.

The survey was conducted by 25 graduate students from Islamabad who visited the tribal areas from November to January, Professor Hussain said. The margin of error was three to five percentage points, he said.

Asked whether militant groups were hurt by the drone attacks, 60 percent of the respondents said yes, and 40 percent no.

Asked whether anti-Americanism in the area had increased because of the drone attacks, 58 percent said it had not; 42 percent said it had.

To the question of whether the drone attacks were accurate, 52 percent said they were; 48 percent said they were not.

The results first stirred debate last month when they were published in a daily newspaper, The News. They were publicized again last week by The Daily Times, a pro-government newspaper.

In an editorial in support of the survey, The Daily Times said local reporters from Orakzai, a tribal area recently hit by a drone strike, found that the people “would actually want the drone attacks to continue to lessen the severity of the Tehrik-e-Taliban control over them.”

One reason the drone attacks received support in the tribal region is that they mostly single out Qaeda leaders who are of Arab descent, Professor Hussain said.

The Arabs are widely disliked by the Pashtun tribes that dominate the area because they try to enforce their strict Wahhabi version of Islam, Professor Hussain said.

The missile strikes do feed the militants’ propaganda machine, he said. “But if the drone attacks stopped,” he added, “I wouldn’t be sure that they would refrain from the terror attacks they have been doing all along.”

source:The New York Times

Pir Zubair Shah contributed reporting.